Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edmondston, Laurence

EDMONDSTON, LAURENCE, M.D. (1795–1879), naturalist, youngest brother of Arthur Edmondston [q. v.], was born in 1795 at Lerwick in Shetland, began life in a mercantile office in London, and for some time resided and travelled on the continent as agent for the house with which he was connected. Having a strong literary and scientific turn, he left the mercantile profession, studied medicine in Edinburgh, and then settled as a medical practitioner in Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland islands. With great skill in his profession and much interest in the welfare of the islanders he combined remarkable acquirements in science. He was an accomplished chemist, archæologist, linguist, and musician. He did much to bring into notice the chromate of iron, found, it is said, in no other part of the British islands than Shetland. He had an extensive and accurate knowledge of antiquarian lore, especially Norse, and was familiar not only with the French, German, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish languages, but also with the Scandinavian tongues and their various dialects: Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese.

His favourite study and pursuit was natural history. He made numerous additions to the list of British birds, embracing the snowy owl, and the Glaucus, Iceland, and Ivory gulls. He was a correspondent (among others) of Bewick, Sir David Brewster, Principal James Forbes, Edward Forbes, Sir W. Hooker, Jameson, Macgillivray, Greville, Gwynn Jeffreys, Allman, and Prince Lucien Bonaparte. He made many experiments in agriculture, and furnished the natives with seed to encourage them to cultivate more suitable varieties of cereals and other crops. Believing, in opposition to the current impression, that trees might grow in the Shetlands, he made a plantation near his house of about a hundred trees and shrubs, and found, to his great satisfaction, that many of them lived and throve. ‘In a land altogether treeless,’ says a writer in ‘Chambers's Journal,’ ‘this feature was at once a striking and most pleasing one. Every tree was planted by the naturalist himself, with what cost and labour was known to him only. … But what was his joy to find, as the years went past and his trees became acclimatised, that woodland birds were attracted by them, and, finding both shelter and food, took up their abode among the kindly branches!’

Edmondston's contributions to literature were mostly in the form of pamphlets and articles in the journals of the philosophical and scientific societies. Among them were: 1. ‘Remarks on some Proposed Alterations in the course of Medical Education of the University of Edinburgh,’ 1830. 2. ‘The Claims of Shetland to a separate Representation in Parliament,’ 1836. 3. ‘Observations on the Distinctions, History, and Hunting of Seals in the Shetland Islands,’ 1837. 4. ‘General Observations on the County of Shetland (new Statistical Account of Scotland),’ 1840. 5. ‘Notes on American Affairs,’ 1863. He was a corresponding member of the Royal Physical and Wernerian Societies, Edinburgh, and honorary member of the Yorkshire Philosophical and Manchester Natural History Societies. He died in 1879, in the eighty-fifth year of his age.

Edmondston's literary and scientific turn was shared by various members of his family. Mrs. Edmondston was a frequent contributor to ‘Chambers's Journal’ and other magazines. His eldest son, Thomas Edmondston [q. v.], though quite a youth when his lamented death occurred, was a distinguished naturalist. Another son, the Rev. Biot Edmondston, is the author of various articles on natural science, and on the manners and customs of the Shetlanders. Thomas, named after his brother, contributes to the ‘Field,’ ‘Land and Water,’ the ‘Zoologist,’ &c. Jessie Margaret has written on the folklore of the north, and has published many volumes of poems and tales, as well as papers on Shetland and its people, past and present. She married Henry L. Saxby, author of the ‘Birds of Shetland,’ and of various medical and ornithological papers.

[Scotsman, March 1879; The Home of a Naturalist—In Memoriam, in Chambers's Journal, 11 Feb. 1882; private information.]

W. G. B.